Schools have become the latest casualty of the unrest that has engulfed Kashmir since the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8. According to reports, more than 25 schools have been set on fire in the past four months and these have taken place in all the districts of the Valley. The attacks seem to have intensified in the past month.

The state government as well as the national media have presented the attacks on schools as the handiwork of pro-Azadi elements out to destroy the future of Kashmir’s youth and prevent the return of normalcy to the Valley.

The reality on the ground, however, is not that simple.

Resistance leaders have blamed the People’s Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state for the attacks, hinting that these could have been an inside job.

While there is no way of verifying either the government’s version or that of the separatists, the police’s ambiguous approach has not helped matters. Almost all the attacks have been blamed on unknown miscreants. Even in cases where arrests have been made, the motives or political affiliations of those arrested have not been made clear. This makes these attacks all the more mysterious.

However, the attacks on schools in Kashmir is a much bigger problem than just the acts of arson on these 25-odd educational institutes.

Not neutral spaces

It is simplistic to look at schools as enclaves of normalcy amidst the conflict in Kashmir. The truth is that schools have never been neutral spaces in Kashmir, nor have schoolchildren been neutral bystanders.

After militancy broke out in the Valley in the 1990s, it became commonplace for military and paramilitary forces to occupy schools. Countless institutes were turned into camps for security forces in no time. In other cases, bunkers were installed in school premises. This continued till the mid-2000s, even though the People’s Democratic Party promised demilitarisation – the reduction of the military presence in the state – when it came to power for the first time in 2002. Over the years, schools have consistently been burnt or damaged during alleged encounters.

But in August this year, the paramilitary forces returned to occupy schools and were deployed in nearly 20 institutions in the Valley.

Schoolchildren have been vulnerable outside school too. Many have been killed in firing by security forces in the past four months and 1,248 injured. A large number of children were also arrested under the Public Safety Act, under which a person can be detained for up to two years without trial. A citizens’ group, headed by former Union minister Yashwant Sinha, that visited the Valley late in October said in its report last Tuesday that the arrest of minors under the Act was a serious problem. It urged the state government to immediately release all minors who were first-time offenders.

Violation of international rules

Despite certain important conventions that prohibit the use of educational spaces for military purposes, this practice has almost become a norm in the Valley. Civilian authorities have seldom protested against it.

The occupation by paramilitary forces of several schools contradicts the state government’s stand that education should not suffer because of the unrest.

India is one of 38 countries that has refused to sign a United Nations Safe Schools Declaration that urges governments to stop the use of schools by the military. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the country is among only 26 where schools and universities were used for military purposes between 2005 and 2015. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq are among the others.

Militarised schools

Another significant aspect of the problem in the Valley is a general silencing of political voices within schools. This is reflected in the school curriculum as well. Till 2008, Kashmiri as a subject was not taught at Valley schools, creating a binary of the high culture of Urdu and English versus the low culture of the vernacular. The latter was seen as ground where resistance politics was discussed and practised.

The school system at every step actively discourages anything remotely political. The only political engagement is one-sided – in the form of Independence Day and Republic Day programmes. In some cases, children are forced to participate in these programmes.

Given the political volatility in Kashmir, these policies aren’t really helping make schools secure and neutral spaces.

On the other hand, ministers and high-ranking officials keep visiting schools. Since they are vulnerable to attacks from militants, they put the lives of students in peril. The security personnel who accompany such dignitaries often end up intimidating young children.

In Kashmir, schools have also consistently maintained a culture of surveillance and of manufacturing consent through tacit moves, such as humiliating crackdowns through school authorities. Many times, it isn’t necessary for the security forces to step in as the school administration does the job even more zealously.

The culture of surveillance is present in colleges too, even institutions that are exclusively for girls. According to an article published in the Indian Express in 2007, “It numbs one’s conscience to see school girls being frisked by soldiers as they enter classrooms. In the district education office at Kupwara, one can see bundles of complaints forwarded by heads of institutions on the humiliation routinely suffered by Kashmiri girls at the hands of security forces.”

Even in the 2000s, at the prestigious Government College for Women on Maulana Azad Road, bags were frisked for prohibited items every day. These items included things as innocuous as phones and make-up products. The offenders were duly punished. A kohl stick was made to seem like an AK-47 rifle and mobile phones were equally contraband.

When the government and national media speak of the need to protect Kashmir’s schools in order to safeguard the future of its youth, their claims cannot be restricted to preventing a few acts of arson. What is needed is a comprehensive demilitarisation of schools and an end to surveillance.